Roman Empire: Otho – Defensive Preparations (Part 8)

THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE

Meanwhile the war opened successfully for Otho. At his order the armies of Dalmatia and Pannonia started from their base. They comprised four legions each of which had sent forward detachments two thousand strong. The rest followed at a short interval: the Seventh legion raised by Galba, [The legion brought from Spain] the Eleventh and Thirteenth, both composed of veteran troops, and the Fourteenth, which had won great distinction by crushing the rebellion in Britain. [The revolt of Boadicea crushed by Suetonius Paulinus; described by Tacitus in his life of Agricola and in Book XIV of the “Annals”] Nero had further increased their glory by choosing them for special service,[i.e. for his projected war against the Albanians. Probably they stopped in Dalmatia on hearing of Nero’s] which accounts for their lasting loyalty to Nero and their keen support of Otho. But the stronger their numbers the greater their self-confidence and the slower their march. The cavalry and auxiliaries preceded the main body of the legions. From Rome itself came no mean force, five regiments of Guards with some detachments of cavalry and the First legion.[The quondam marines] To these were added an irregular force of 2,000 gladiators, [They were commanded by Martius Macer] a shameful assistance of which during the civil wars even strict generals availed themselves. Annius Gallus was placed in command of these forces with Vestricius Spurinna, [The defender of Placentia. He earned further laurels under Trajan in Germany. He was a friend of Tacitus and the younger Pliny, and is suspected of writing some bad verse] and they were sent forward to hold the line of the Po. Their first plans had failed, Caecina, whom Otho had hoped to hold within the Gallic provinces, having already crossed the Alps. [Early in March] Under Otho’s personal command marched picked detachments of his Body Guard and the rest of the Household troops, together with reservists of the Guard and a large force of marines.[Not regularly formed into a legion: those to whom ‘he held out hopes of honourable service] He let no luxury either delay or disgrace his march. In an iron breast-plate he marched on foot at the head of his troops, looking rough and dishevelled, quite unlike his reputation.

Fortune smiled on his first efforts. By sea his fleet held most of the Italian coast right up to the foot of the Maritime Alps. To secure these mountains and attack the province of Narbonese Gaul he had placed in command Suedius Clemens, Antonius Novellus, and Aemilius Pacensis. Pacensis, however, was made a prisoner by his mutinous troops: Novellus had no authority: Clemens’ command rested on popularity, and he was as greedy of battle as he was criminally blind to insubordination. No one could have imagined they were in Italy, on the soil of their native land. As though on foreign shores and among an enemy’s towns, they burnt, ravaged, plundered, with results all the more horrible since no precautions had been taken against danger.

The fields were full, the houses open. The inhabitants came to meet them with their wives and children, and were lured by the security of peace into all the horrors of war. The Governor of the Maritime Alps [The mountainous district north of the Italian frontier on the Var] at that time was Marius Maturus. He summoned the inhabitants, whose fighting strength was ample, and proposed to resist at the frontier the Othonians’ invasion of the province. But at the first engagement the mountaineers were cut down and dispersed. They had assembled in random haste; they knew nothing of military service or discipline, nothing of the glory of victory or the disgrace of flight.

Enraged by this engagement, Otho’s troops visited their indignation on the town of Albintimilium.[Ventimiglia, the modern frontier town between France and Italy on the Riviera] The battle had brought them no booty, for the peasants were poor and their armour worthless, and being swift of foot, with a good knowledge of the country, they had escaped capture. However, the soldiers sated their greed at the expense of the innocent town. A Ligurian woman afforded a fine example of courage which made their conduct the more odious. She had concealed her son, and when the soldiers, who believed that she had hidden some money as well, demanded from her under torture where she was keeping him concealed, she pointed to her belly and replied, ‘He is in hiding.’ No subsequent tortures nor even death itself could bring her to change that brave and noble answer.

Panic-stricken couriers brought to Fabius Valens the news that Otho’s fleet was threatening the province of Narbonese Gaul, which had sworn allegiance to Vitellius. Representatives from the Roman colonies also arrived beseeching his aid. He dispatched two cohorts of the Tungri [A Gallic tribe living round Tongres and Spa] and four troops of horse, together with the entire cavalry regiment of the Treviri. [Living round Trier] This force was put under the command of Julius Classicus,[Afterwards one of the leaders in the rebellion on the Rhine] and part of it was detained in the colony of Forum Julii, [Frejus] since if the whole force marched inland and the sea-board were left unprotected Otho’s fleet would swoop down at once. Twelve troops of cavalry and a picked body of auxiliaries marched against the enemy: these were reinforced by a Ligurian cohort which had long garrisoned this district, and a draft of five hundred Pannonian recruits who had not yet joined their legion. [i.e. either the VII Galbian or XIII Gemina, both of which were on Otho’s side] The engagement began promptly. Their line was so arranged that some of the marines, reinforced by the peasants, held the rising ground by the sea, while the Guards filled the level space between the hills and the shore. The fleet, acting in conjunction with the land force, was ready to play its part in the battle, and extended a threatening front facing the coast. The Vitellians, weaker in infantry, put their trust in their horse. The mountaineers [i.e. the Ligurian cohort, mentioned above] were posted on the neighbouring heights, and the auxiliaries massed in close order behind the cavalry. The Treviran cavalry rashly charged the enemy, and meeting Otho’s guards in front were simultaneously assailed in the flank by the peasants, flinging stones. This they could do well enough; and, drafted among the regulars, they all, bold and timid alike, showed the same courage in the hour of victory. Panic struck the defeated Vitellians when the fleet began to harass their rear. They were now surrounded, and would have been entirely destroyed had not darkness arrested the victors and sheltered their flight.

But though beaten the Vitellians were not cowed. Calling up reinforcements, they suddenly attacked while the unsuspecting enemy were taking their ease after the victory. They killed the pickets, broke into the camp and terrified the sailors. In time the panic subsided. The Othonians seized a hill, defended their position, and eventually assumed the offensive. The slaughter was frightful. The officers commanding the Tungri, after a long defence of their position, fell beneath a shower of weapons. The victory also cost the Othonians heavy loss, for the enemy’s cavalry rallied and cut off all who rashly ventured too far in pursuit. So they agreed to a sort of armistice. As a safeguard against sudden raids either by the fleet on the one side or the cavalry on the other, the Vitellians retired to Antipolis, [Antibes] a town of the Narbonese province, and the Othonians to Albingaunum [Albenga] in the interior of Liguria.

The fame of this naval victory kept Corsica and Sardinia and the adjacent islands faithful to Otho’s cause. However, Decumus Pacarius, the procurator, [Sardinia and Corsica were an imperial province A.D.6-67. Then Nero gave it back to the senate to compensate for his declaration of the independence of Achaia. Vespasian once more transferred it to imperial government. If “procurator” is correct here, Pacarius must have been a subordinate imperial functionary in a senatorial province. As the province changed hands so often and was so soon after this placed under imperial control, it is possible that Tacitus made a mistake and that Pacarius was an ex-praetor. Those who feel that Tacitus is unlikely to have made this error, and that Pacarius can hardly have been anything but governor, adopt the suggestion that Corsica did not share the fate of Sardinia in A.D. 67, but remained under the control of an imperial procurator. There is no clear evidence of this, but under Diocletian Corsica was certainly separate] nearly ruined Corsica by an act of indiscretion, which in a war of such dimensions could not possibly have affected the issue, and only ended in his own destruction. He hated Otho and determined to aid Vitellius with all the forces of Corsica; a useless assistance, even if it had been forthcoming. He summoned the chief men of the island and disclosed his project. Claudius Pyrrhicus, who commanded the Liburnian cruisers [These cruisers were of a peculiarly light build, called after the Liburni, an Illyrian tribe, who fought for Octavian in the battle of Actium. He introduced similar craft into the Roman navy. They were very fast, and worked with a triangular, instead of the usual square sail] stationed there, and a Roman knight named Quintius Certus ventured to oppose him. He ordered their execution. This overawed the others who were present. So they swore allegiance to Vitellius, as did also the general mass of ignorant people, who blindly shared a fear they did not feel. However, when Pacarius began to enlist them and to harass his undisciplined men with military duties, their loathing for the unwonted labour set them thinking of their weakness. ‘They lived in an island: Vitellius’ legions were in Germany, a long way off: Otho’s fleet had already sacked and plundered districts that had even horse and foot to protect them.’ The revulsion was sudden, but did not issue in overt resistance. They chose a suitable moment for their treachery. Waiting till Pacarius’ visitors [i.e. his Corsican and Roman clients] were gone, they murdered him, stripped and helpless, in his bath, and killed his comrades too. The heads they bore themselves to Otho, like enemies’ scalps. Neither did Otho reward nor Vitellius punish them. In the general confusion their deed was overshadowed by more heinous crimes.

We have already described how ‘Silius’ Horse’ had admitted the war into the heart of Italy. No one there either supported Otho or preferred Vitellius. But prolonged peace had broken their spirits to utter servility. They were an easy prey to the first comer and cared little who was the better man. All the fields and cities between the Alps and the Po, the most fertile district in Italy, were held by the Vitellian forces, the cohorts sent forward by Caecina having already arrived. One of the Pannonian cohorts had been captured at Cremona: a hundred cavalry and a thousand marines had been cut off between Placentia and Ticinum. [Piacenza and Pavia] After this success the river and its steep banks were no barrier to the Vitellian troops: indeed the Batavians and other Germans found the Po a positive temptation. Crossing suddenly opposite Placentia, they captured a handful of scouts and created such a panic that the others in terror spread the false report that Caecina’s whole army was upon them.

Spurinna, who was holding Placentia, had made up his mind that Caecina had not yet arrived, and that, if he should, his troops must be kept within their lines: he could not pit three cohorts of guards with one detachment a thousand strong,[i.e. one of the two detachments sent forward by the armies of Dalmatia and Pannonia] and a few cavalry, against Caecina’s veteran army. But his men were unruly and ignorant of war. [Otho’s Praetorian Guards were the weakest point in his army] Seizing the standards and colours they broke out, threatening to kill the general who tried to check them and paying no heed to their superior officers. They even clamoured that Otho was being betrayed, and Caecina had been summoned.[ i.e. that Spurinna was in league with Caecina, and meant to hand them over to him] Spurinna yielded unwillingly to their folly, at first under compulsion, later with a show of sympathy. He was anxious to gain weight for his advice, should the mutiny cool.

At nightfall, with the Po in sight, Spurinna decided to entrench his camp. [He was making ‘a reconnaissance in force westwards along the river bank to discover, if he could, the strength and intentions of the enemy’ (B.W. Henderson, “Civil War”, etc.). But Mr. E.G. Hardy points out that, as he had only 4,000 men and Caecina’s 30,000 were in the immediate neighbourhood, this would have been foolish. It seems better to believe Tacitus’ suggestion that his insubordinate troops forced Spurinna to march out] The unaccustomed hard work soon blunted the enthusiasm of his town-bred troops. The older men began to curse their credulity, and to point out the fearful danger to their small force of being surrounded by Caecina’s army in the open country. Soon a more sober spirit pervaded the camp. The tribunes and centurions mingled with the men, and every one talked with admiration of Spurinna’s foresight in selecting a powerful and wealthy colony as a strong base for their operations. Finally Spurinna himself rather explained his plans than reproached their faults, and, leaving patrols behind, succeeded eventually in leading the rest of the men back to Placentia in a quieter and more submissive frame of mind. There the walls were repaired, outworks built, and the turrets increased in height and number, while Spurinna provided not only for arms and ammunition but also for obedience and discipline. This was all his party lacked, for their courage was unimpeachable.

Caecina, on the other hand, seemed to have left his cruelty and profligacy on the other side of the Alps. He marched through Italy with a well-disciplined force. The people in the country-towns and colonies took offence at his costume as showing arrogance. While they wore the plain toga, Caecina addressed them attired in a parti-coloured plaid and trousers. [Considered Gallic and effeminate] Moreover, his wife Salonina rode on a fine horse with purple trappings, and though this did no one any harm, they grumbled and seemed hurt. It is an ineradicable human trait to turn critical eyes on new-found fortune, and to insist upon moderation most of all in those who used to be our equals. Crossing the Po, Caecina tried to undermine the loyalty of the Othonians by negotiations and promises. They retaliated with the same weapons, and when they had finished bandying empty and fine-sounding phrases about Peace and Union, Caecina devoted all his attention and plans to an assault on Placentia in terrific force. He knew that his future reputation rested on the issue of his first engagements. [Mr. Henderson (“Civil War”, etc.) argues that it was imperative for Caecina to take the fortress at Placentia, since it threatened his sole line of communication with Valens’ column. Tacitus, as usual, gives a practical rather than a strategic motive. His interests are purely human]

But the first day’s work savoured more of impatience than of a veteran army’s methods. The men ventured under the walls without cover or precaution, drunk and overfed. Meanwhile the amphitheatre, a fine building outside the walls, was burnt down. It was set on fire either by the attacking force hurling torches and heated shot and fire-brands, or by the besieged in returning their fire. The common people of the town harboured a suspicion that fuel for the fire had been surreptitiously introduced from one of the neighbouring colonies, and that the motive was jealousy, since no building in Italy could hold so many people. However it happened, they thought little of it, while worse disasters threatened: safety assured, they bewailed it as the worst calamity they could have suffered. To return, however, to Caecina: he was repulsed with heavy losses, and the night was spent in preparations. The Vitellians provided mantlets, fascines, and penthouses, [Familiar devices for sheltering troops against missiles from a town wall. They were generally made of hurdles covered with raw hides. The “vinea” was a shelter on poles, so named from its resemblance to a pergola of vines] to protect the assailants while undermining the walls: the Othonians procured stakes and huge masses of stone or lead or brass, to break through the enemy’s formation and crush them to pieces. Both parties were actuated by feelings of pride and ambition. Various encouragements were used, one side praising the strength of the legions and the German army, the other the reputation of the Guards and the City Garrison. The Vitellians decried their enemy as lazy effeminates demoralized by the circus and the theatre: to which they replied that the Vitellians were a pack of foreigners and barbarians. Meanwhile, Otho and Vitellius were held up to praise or blame, insult providing the more fruitful stimulus.

Hardly had day dawned before the walls of Placentia bristled with defenders, and the fields glittered with the soldiers’ armour. The Vitellian legions [Caecina may have formed the detachments into another legion] advancing in close order with their auxiliaries in scattered bands assailed the higher portions of the walls with stones and arrows: where the walls were in disrepair or crumbling from age they came close up to them. The Othonians above, poising and aiming their weapons with surer effect, rained them down on the Germans, who came rashly charging under the walls with the wild songs and scanty dress of their country, brandishing their shields over their heads. Meanwhile, the legionaries under cover of their mantlets and fascines set to work to undermine the walls, build up a mound, and assail the gates, while Otho’s Guards rolled on to them with terrific crashes huge millstones, which they had arranged for this purpose along the walls. Of those beneath, some were crushed by the stones; others, wounded by darts, were left mangled and bleeding to death. Panic redoubled the slaughter, and the rain of missiles came all the fiercer from the walls. At last they sacrificed the honour of their party and beat a retreat. Caecina, ashamed of his rash attempt at assault, was afraid of looking ridiculous and useless if he sat still in the same camp. So he crossed the Po and made for Cremona. As he was retiring, Turullius Cerialis with a large force of marines, and Julius Briganticus [Civilis’ nephew and bitter enemy] with a few cavalry, came over to his side. The latter, a Batavian born, had held a cavalry command: the former was a senior centurion, who was known to Caecina, as he had served in that capacity in Germany.

Spurinna, learning the enemy’s route, informed Annius Gallus [Spurinna’s colleague in the command of the advanced guard from Rome. He was now probably at Mantua] by letter of all that had happened, the defence of Placentia and Caecina’s plans. Gallus was leading the First legion to the relief of Placentia, for he doubted the ability of the weak force of Guards to resist a long siege and the full strength of the German army. Hearing that Caecina was defeated and making for Cremona, he halted at Bedriacum, though he found it hard to restrain the ardour of his troops, whose zeal for battle nearly broke into mutiny. The village of Bedriacum lies between Verona and Cremona, [At the meeting of two high roads leading to Cremona, the one from Hostilia and the other from Mantua. It was near here that Vitellius defeated Otho, and here that his power fell before Vespasian] and two Roman disasters have now given it a sinister notoriety.

In the same week Martius Macer gained a victory in the neighbourhood of Cremona. With great enterprise he had transported his gladiators across the Po, and suddenly flung them on to the opposite bank. There they routed the Vitellian auxiliaries and killed all who offered resistance, the rest taking flight to Cremona. But Macer checked their victorious ardour, for fear that the enemy might be reinforced and reverse the fortune of the battle. This aroused suspicion among the Othonians, who put a bad construction on all that their generals did. All the least courageous and most impudent of the troops vied incessantly with each other in bringing various charges against Annius Gallus, Suetonius Paulinus, and Marius Celsus, for the two latter had also been placed in command by Otho. The most energetic in promoting mutiny and dissension were Galba’s murderers, who, maddened by their feelings of fear and of guilt, created endless disorder, sometimes talking open sedition, sometimes sending anonymous letters to Otho. As he always believed men of the meaner sort and distrusted patriots, he now wavered nervously, being always irresolute in success and firmer in the face of danger. He therefore sent for his brother Titianus [He had left him in charge of Rome] and gave him the chief command.

Meanwhile success attended the generalship of Paulinus and Celsus. [Gallus was disabled and took no part in this engagement: hence the omission of his name] Caecina was tortured by his constant failure and the waning reputation of his army. Repulsed from Placentia, he had lately seen his auxiliaries defeated, and his patrols constantly worsted in skirmishes more frequent than memorable. Now that Fabius Valens was close at hand, he determined not to let all the glory of the war fall to him, and hastened with more zeal than prudence to retrieve his reputation. About twelve miles [About 10-1/2 English miles] distant from Cremona, at a place called “Twin Brethren”, [Locus Castorum] he carefully concealed the bravest of his auxiliaries in a wood overlooking the road. The cavalry were ordered to ride forward down the road and provoke an engagement. They were then to feign flight and lure the pursuers on in hot haste until they fell into the ambush. This plan was betrayed to Otho’s generals. Paulinus took charge of the infantry, Celsus of the horse. A detachment of the Thirteenth legion, four auxiliary cohorts of foot, and five hundred cavalry were stationed on the left flank. Three cohorts of the Guards in column occupied the raised high-road. [The Via Postumia, built up on a causeway high above the fields on either side] On the right flank marched the First legion, two auxiliary cohorts of foot, and five hundred cavalry. Besides these they moved out a thousand cavalry–Guards and auxiliaries–as a reserve to crown their success, or assist them in difficulties.

Before they came to close quarters, the Vitellians began to retire. Celsus, forewarned of the ruse, halted his men. Whereupon the Vitellians impatiently rose from their ambush and, while Celsus slowly retired, followed him further and further until they plunged headlong into an ambush themselves. The auxiliaries were on their flanks; the legions faced them in front; and the cavalry by a sudden maneuver had closed in on their rear. However, Suetonius Paulinus did not immediately give the signal for his infantry to charge. He was by nature dilatory, and preferred cautiously reasoned measures to accidental success. He kept on issuing orders about filling up the ditches, clearing the fields and extending the line, convinced that it was soon enough to play for victory when he had taken every precaution against defeat. This delay gave the Vitellians time to take refuge in the vineyards, where the interlaced vine-stems made it hard to follow. Adjoining these was a little wood, from under cover of which they ventured another sally and killed the foremost of the Guards’ cavalry. There Prince Epiphanes [Son of Antiochus, king of Commagene. He was in Rome probably as a hostage, and accompanied Otho] was wounded, while making vigorous efforts to rally Otho’s forces.

At this point Otho’s infantry charged, crushed the opposing line, and even routed the troops who were hurrying up in support. For Caecina had brought up his reinforcements not all at once but in separate detachments. These, arriving in scattered units, and never in sufficient force, only added to the confusion, since the panic of the rout infected them as well. Mutiny, too, broke out in the camp, because the troops were not all taken into battle. Julius Gratus, the camp-prefect, was put in irons on a charge of plotting with his brother, who was fighting on Otho’s side. It was known that the Othonians had arrested the brother, Julius Fronto, on the same charge.

For the rest, such was the universal panic among pursuers and pursued, on the field and in the camp, that it was commonly said on both sides that, if Suetonius Paulinus had not sounded the retreat, Caecina’s whole army might have been destroyed. Paulinus maintained that he avoided any excessive strain of work or marching, for fear of exposing his exhausted troops to a counter-attack from the Vitellians in the camp, who were still fresh for battle: besides, he had no reserves to fall back on in case of defeat. A few approved of the general’s strategy, but the common opinion was adverse.[ An eminent critic has called Tacitus’ account of this battle an ‘historical nightmare’, but those who do not suffer from a surfeit of military knowledge may find that it lies easy upon them. It is written for the plain man with an eye for situations and an ear for phrases]

REFERENCE: The Histories (Book 2) of Publius Cornelius Tacitus
Translated w/Notation: By W. HAMILTON FYFE (1912)
CONTRIBUTOR: Callum McCormick

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